Here’s an interesting with Ryan Van Winkle conducted by the Scottish Book Trust. One commenter (anonymous, of course) got upset over Ryan’s answer to ‘What’s the best thing about being a poet?’ Ryan isn’t comfortable with calling himself a ‘poet’ and the commenter didn’t seem to understand that his answer wasn’t supposed to be altogether serious. That’s the problem with the Internet so often – humour, irony, sarcasm don’t always travel.
Personally, I’ve had no difficulty in calling myself a poet but that’s because, to me, a ‘poet’ is simply someone who writes poetry. It might be good, bad or indifferent poetry but if someone writes it, then they’re a good, bad or indifferent ‘poet’. I don’t care much what other people call themselves. It all comes down to the words in the end, the poems. That’s what counts. The aim is to write good poems, not to achieve some kind of meaningless title. That’s always been my attitude.
In many countries, such as Syria (which Ryan mentions in his passport story at the interview), poets are held in very high regard, although people can only be publicly ‘smitten’ by the officially sanctioned ones. There may be a certain loosening in that regard, if this story about the weekly Damascus literary salon is anything to go by. It does explain why the stern military-type customs officials were so taken by Ryan’s ‘poet’ designation on his customs card. It’s obviously a big deal there to write poetry and it has value to the society of a kind money can’t buy. I think a society loses that attitude at its peril, although Britain may well have already lost it.
Perhaps if I lived in Syria, I may be less keen to use the word ‘poet’ of anyone who writes poetry, as it clearly confers cultural status. Maybe in Britain I am complicit in society’s downgrading of poetry by so far refusing to attach value to the title of ‘poet’. Our society thunders against elitism, while eagerly creating and maintaining its own elite classes (the rich, celebrities, actors, supermodels etc). A nation’s elite groups reveal the common values (money, power, glamour, fame etc) people tend to live for.
What Do You Think?
Should we restrict the title of ‘poet’ to a few, mainly dead, poets? Not so much as a mark of respect, but as a political act, a symbol of what we believe has value?